The experience of women during the liberation struggle in north west Somalia, 1980-8820 Editors’ note

Somalia came to the world’s attention in 1991 when the Siad Barre regime collapsed with the outbreak of war in Mogadishu but what is often overlooked is that civil war had been going on in Somalia since the end of the Ogaden War with Ethiopia in l978.The brutality of the post-1990 conflict, and the use of sexual violence, had precedents in the government’s war against its own people: first in Muduug Region, Somalia’s central rangelands, in response to the formation of the Majeerteen-based Somali Salvation Democratic Front (SSDF); and then in the north west of the country following the foundation of the mainly Isaq-supported Somali National Movement (SNM) in 1980. Both the SSDF and the SNM launched their armed struggles from bases in Ethiopia with the support of the regime of Mengistu Haile-Mariam. The SSDF insurgency collapsed in 1986 when a rapprochement between Somalia and Ethiopia led to the arrest of its leader.

The SNM claimed to be a pan-Somalia movement; its aim was the overthrow of the Siad Barre government. From the late 1970s onwards Siad Barre’s regime increasingly discriminated against the Isaq population of north west Somalia (the area now known as Somaliland).There was unequal political representation, there were unfair economic practices and development resources were unevenly distributed. The population of the region faced growing hostility from Ogaden refugee paramilitary groups, which had been set up and armed by the Barre government. Draconian emergency legislation gave extraordinary powers to the military and police. As this group testimony describes, these powers were used to repress the Isaq population. Between 1982 and 1991 the forces responsible for the nation’s security carried out mass arrests, detentions without trial, extortion, extra-judicial executions, rape, looting and torture of innocent citizens.

The military became established as the political elite in the north west, sustaining their position and privileges through violence. Their interests… were not solely political. Corruption was rife. After 1982, military transfers to the north west were much sought after as an opportunity to make money.2l

The women speaking in this testimony say that arbitrary arrests and torture were a common means of extracting money. People who were unable to buy their release were commonly killed or died of ill-treatment. In reference to the trade in human lives, Hargeisa police station was nicknamed the saylada dadka,‘the meat market’.

Men were the primary target of arrest, detentions and killings. Many were snatched away neverto be seen or heard of again. One man who lived in Hargeisa at the time, and whom the regime imprisoned, said that Siad Barre saw men in general, particularly Isaq, as‘enemies ofthe revolution’.22

As a consequence of the regime’s policies towards the north west, public services barely functioned and corruption was rife. Freedom of movement was restricted in 1986 as vehicle owners were forced to get written permission to travel between towns, and livestock and other property was taxed and confiscated. The rural population was subjected to the same scorched-earth policy of asset stripping, killings, destruction of water reservoirs, burning of farms and planting of landmines that had been used against the Majeerteen in Muduug Region in 1979-81 when thousands of civilians had been killed. Isaqs faced discrimination in employment and access to services. For the many innocent people targeted there was no possibility of legal help or protection. The government was at war with its own people.

The women whose collective testimony is recorded here are Amina Yusuf, Shukri Hariir Ismail, Zamzam Abdi and the late Noreen Michael Mariano. All lived in Hargeisa during the government repression and counter-insurgency in the north west, and after the war took on important roles in the community working to rebuild society and a secure peace. Interviewed in Hargeisa in 1999 they recall life in the city under the military regime of Siad Barre, the impact of the civil war on men and women, and the roles women played in trying to counter the repression.